Stagecoach (1939)

stagecoach poster 1939 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 8/10

Solid movie Western that doesn't rely on action

Kind of typical Western with stock characters

Movie Info

Movie Name: Stagecoach

Studio:  Walter Wanger Productions

Genre(s): Western/Drama

Release Date(s):  February 10, 1939 (Premiere)/March 3, 1939 (US)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

stagecoach monument valley

See the beauty of Monument Valley (just don’t look too closely since it appears that they just keep taking the same trail)

The stagecoach is leaving Tonto in the Arizona Territory and headed to Lordsburg, New Mexico.  Onboard is an exiled woman of the night named Dallas (Claire Trevor), a drunken man named Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a pregnant cavalry wife named Lucy (Louise Platt) who is meeting her husband, a banker named Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a former Confederate soldier named Hatfield (John Carradine), and a whiskey salesman named Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).  Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) has commandeered the driver Buck (Andy Devine) to help him locate the escaped Ringo Kid (John Wayne), but when the stagecoach finds Ringo, they learn that the danger is growing in the territory.  Geronimo and the Apaches are on the warpath and getting to Lordsburg might be impossible.

Directed by John Ford, Stagecoach is a Western drama.  The film adapts the 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox which was published in the Saturday Evening Post.  The movie won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Music—Scoring with nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography—Black and White, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing.  The film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995 and the Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #516).

stagecoach john wayne hd

We’re in a real pinch now!

Stagecoach is a classic.  Like other Ford films, the movie helped develop the Western genre and served as templates for future films.  Stagecoach is a bit odd in that it almost feels like a straight drama set in the West for a majority of its runtime…and then the last twenty minutes or so, the action happens.

It is evident as a modern viewer of Stagecoach how things have changed.  A movie like this today would have started out with some sort of shootout (perhaps Ringo’s escape) and a big action sequence to satisfy the impatient viewers.  Instead Stagecoach rolls on with talk of Apache attacks and danger, but none are seen.  The essentially stock characters mix and mingle and that is where the drama builds.  Dallas and Ringo are the outsiders, Lucy is the prude, Doc is the drunk, and Henry is obviously hiding and a worse person than Dallas or Ringo despite his high profile appearance.  It is true of all the characters and once the action happens, the characters’ flaws play out or are subverted.

Since they are playing stock character, many of the actors really don’t seem to do much with their roles.  The exception would be Thomas Mitchell who feels like his character has a real (but predictable) arc.  The other characters seem rather unchanged by the events.  You know Wayne’s character isn’t in his heart a bad guy and that Claire Trevor is actually the classic “hooker with the heart of gold”.  There are few surprises including the blowhard Berton Churchill role.

stagecoach ending chase apache native americans

Ok…all the sudden we’ve turned into Mad Max

The movie also set-up many of Ford’s future films.  It was the first film that Ford shot at Monument Valley and Ford revisited the location again and again.  The black-and-white picture doesn’t capture all of the glory of area and even in extremely cleaned up versions is still rather scratchy.  The other slight problem with Ford’s choice of location is that if you are paying attention even a little bit, the wagon seems to just be going by the same mesas and land masses over and over again.

Despite flaws that are somewhat based on when it was made, Stagecoach is an interesting film.  The set-up almost has a mystery feel in that all the characters seem like members of an Agatha Christie story…you expect one to end up murdered and the others as suspects.  The final push of the film with the action is necessary since it builds to it (and the chase is rather intense), but it also makes you wonder if it could have remained a drama and almost subvert what we consider a “Western” by avoiding what are now clichés and problematic stereotypes…what if the Apache had never attacked and it had simply been about the struggle to reach Lordsburg under a tense situation?  The character driven story might have been even more inventive…but Stagecoach does what was expected for the time and still comes out on top.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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